Yesterday was Wednesday, so I of course read the NYT Dining section.  I generally read it online, but since I was Long Island-bound, I got myself a copy for the train ride.  Eventually I found myself at Section A, with the International, National, and Local stories, followed by the Op-Ed pieces.  I always read this section from back to front, and once I passed the Op-Eds the last page of local news contained 2 articles.  Above the fold a sad girl, seemingly in her late teens, stared out at me, and below the fold was a photo of three 30-something people standing around a turntable.

The Article up top was about how kids age out of the foster system. With unemployment climbing in the city, many of their advocates are concerned they are now effectively on the fast-track towards homelessness.  They are the forgotten children, bounced around their entire lives and then cast off to fend for themselves.

The other article was about a bunch of recently unemployed people who have decided to become DJs, and who have gone to school to learn how to spin records and mix music digitally.  The undercurrent has a whiff of people becoming unbound by the falling economy: with little left to lose, they can now pursue their youthful dreams. The top note, however, was about the rise of enrollment in DJ schools and the semi-lucrative opportunity DJing affords people who are slowly whittling away their severance packages.

At first I was taken aback at how the foster youth article was essentially buried in the paper, hidden. They are the forgotten ones, indeed. I am aware of the hierarchy of newspapers, the way stories are prioritized based on what sells the most papers—but still. This story made it sound as if foster kids definitely don’t have the dollar and change to spare for their daily NYT.

But what the page really made me think of is the characters we give voice to in fiction and the worlds we illuminate in our stories, and if in shedding that light we create portals of opportunity for our readers.  When we write about marginalized people, or show a kaleidoscopic (and often grim) view of humanity, are we in effect helping to make the marginalized more mainstream?  Should that be the duty of a writer?  Or should we avoid such subjects at all costs?  If so, are we then effectively marginalizing ourselves as authors?

But to come back to my trip to Long Island: I was headed there to visit my Grandma and spend the day making gefilte fish and matzoh ball soup for the Passover meal. Over the course of the day somehow my uncle’s dog came up in conversation.  That dog has been dead at least 20 years, but Grandma’s stream of consciousness can wind in unexpected ways. She asked me if I knew the dog was born a hermaphrodite.  I said that perhaps I did, but who could really say whether or not that was true? 

While I don’t mean to place aspiring DJs, foster children and hermaphroditic dogs all on the same plane, maybe it is important to create pointed characters.  Perhaps we should make an effort to carve out places in literature for those who cannot afford to buy the books written about them.

All this is by way of me asking: Where do your characters come from?  What do you ask them as you write their stories?  Is literature salvation for “lost” peoples?     

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I recently received a gift from a friend in the form of an e-book. 

E-books are electronic versions of print books displayed either on a computer or an e-book device, which is about the size of a normal paperback book but more closely resembles a giant palm pilot complete with giant stylus used for scrolling through the pages.

In the beginning, e-books were generally used for technical and mechanical training manuals, but in the last few years they have intruded into the literary arena.

Of course there are advantages to an e-book. For example, you can store thousands of books on the same device, you don’t need a reading light because the screen is back lit, and you don’t have to hold open a book and turn its pages, which, depending on where you’re reading (e.g., bed, airplane, bus, solitary confinement), can be a big plus. And, of course, the biggest advantage to the e-book is it doesn’t waste paper, which saves trees. 

But isn’t it somewhat comforting owning your favorite books and packing your shelves full of them? And imagine (God forbid) that e-books become the norm and you never have the opportunity to buy a book ever again, or peruse a bookstore for hours on end?

Now here’s the kicker. Last summer, e-books started coming in text-message format for certain youth-lit publications. Some genius figured it would be easier for kids to read only 10 or so words at a time, and these e-books are even equipped with text language! Imagine Holden Caulfield LOLing all over Manhattan, or Sal Paradise telling Dean Moriarty that he’ll BRB. AHHHHHHH!!! It makes me want to smack a kid.

I, for one, love being able to open a book and turn its pages. And when I’m not busy with life, I’m usually in a bookstore—and I’m not talking about some dumb Internet store.

E-books are incredibly new, and the technology will need more time on the market to prove its worth, if it even has any. Will e-books replace traditional books, or will they go the way of the pet rock and the eight-track player?

ebook

imagesTomorrow night’s Riggio Honors Program: Writing and Democracy student reading is the last chance this fall to hear the words being written by your peers.  

Over the last couple of years within the Riggio program, I have both read my work and actively avoided reading publicly. I used to balk at the idea of leaving the quiet and safety of my desk. I wanted to write, not read aloud. And even after many readings—student, thesis, 12th Street launch parties—I can still feel my voice shake for at least the first page and a half.  

In the past two weeks, querying my fellow students as to whether or not they would be reading tomorrow night, I have heard all the familiar reasons they will not be reading. I say “familiar,” as they used to belong to me.

Adrián Jiménez (A.J. to most), last year’s editor-In-chief, used to write something brand new the afternoon of a reading explicitly for the occasion. I found the thought terrifying. The idea of having such a comfortable relationship with my words so quickly seemed a nightmare. At that point, I saw standing at the podium in front of the audience as a moment of judgment, so how could I possibly read words that I had only judged myself for a few hours?

Then I looked around the room. Most everyone else was as nervous as I was, and these were my peers. I remembered Douglas Martin relaying a story to me of his college days, when he would take his required texts out of the library. The story ended with his professor asking the class, “If you don’t buy books as writers yourselves, how can you ever expect someone else to buy yours?”  That may be a roundabout way of telling my larger point: a vibrant and healthy writing community is built from within.

So tomorrow night I will be reading something, perhaps words I have yet to write. And I hope to see a lot of you, the Riggio community, there as well, as readers, listeners or both. All the info was in last week’s Riggio newsletter and you can still sign up to read if you e-mail Luis. See you there!

Room 510 @ 66 West 12th Street, 6:30 PM

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

Stephen King, On Writing, A Memoir Of The Craft

 

I guess this week I am still ruminating on Zoë’s Monday post, which, mixed with the rainy gray weather, has me burrowing into my couch and curling up with books. I’m looking for inspiration, trying to get outside of my head and then look back inside with a fresh perspective. And while my reading lists this semester are long, the book I’ve currently chosen to hole myself up with is A.M. Homes’ In a Country of Mothers.

This is probably my third reading of the novel and every time I reach the end I cannot help but be left with the idea, “So that is how you write a novel. Oh.” The woman can tell a story, and she does it so seamlessly it is both daunting and disarming.

So, I want to know what you guys are reading right now, or what books you return to repeatedly because you feel they embody writing as you desire it to be. I’m already en route to needing yet another bookcase, so give me some ideas with which to overflow the shelves in my future.